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“The Adventures Of Captain Marvel” Timeless Entertainment
Considered to be the greatest movie serial of all time, “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” has not lost its appeal to fans of serials and superhero-oriented films over the decades since its release in 1941. Produced by Republic Pictures, “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” is also the first movie to depict a popular comic superhero on the silver screen. Created by C. C. Beck and Bill Parker back in 1939, Captain Marvel debuted in Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett Publications. Republic initially wanted to do a serial on Superman, a competitor superhero, but was unable to acquire licensing in time to proceed with the making of the movie. Instead, Captain Marvel beat Superman to the punch, and the timing was right, for the superhero in the red and yellow costume translated beautifully to the silver screen with the right special effects, actor in the title role, supporting actors, and script.
Tom Tyler – a former weightlifting champion – seemed born to play the role of Captain Marvel. Not only did he look like superhero in real life – he possessed the height, muscular physique, hair color and facial features, but seemed totally comfortable wearing the costume while executing his scenes to perfection. Moreover, an element of Tyler's real-life personality is reflected in the role, an enigmatic man who is the “strong, silent type” which makes him so appealing, yet never afraid to tackle the bad guys who stand in his way. Being Captain Marvel certainly placed Tom Tyler at the height of his career, previously being a lead actor in B-westerns where he usually portrayed heroes. Tyler gets to showcase his champion weightlifting prowess in “The Adventures of Captain Marvel”: lifting the gangsters clear above his head, catching and throwing a 700-lb car engine meant to strike him, and lifting tree trunks out of the road. Coming from a silent-film background, Tom Tyler proved to be as timeless as the superhero he portrayed on the silver screen.
Frank Coghlan Jr. portrayed Billy Batson, a juvenile lead who already had appeared in over fifty films by the time he made “The Adventures of Captain Marvel.” Curiously enough, Frank looked just like Billy Batson in the Whiz Comics comic books: a pre-teen boy (Coghlan was already 25 years old when he appeared in the serial but possessed a youthful appearance enough to pull off the role) who is bestowed with special gifts from Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury that transform him into Captain Marvel whenever he says the word “Shazam!” As Wordsworth wrote:
Our life's star
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from far.
Even though Billy has these special powers, he is also a tough youngster, not afraid to deliver punches on his own to the gangsters who work for the Scorpion. When he can't take care of the enemy as his young self, Billy must only say the word “Shazam!” and invoke the powers of the gods in order to protect the world from domination by the Scorpion. The moment Billy Batson transforms into Captain Marvel for the first time is a moment of pure magic in the serial. As Captain Marvel, he must not only guard the Scorpion idol but protect the members of the Malcolm Expedition and the world from the Scorpion as best he can. Captain Marvel also has the duty to ultimately expose the Scorpion for he imposter that he is, and bring him to justice.
Billy Batson's co-worker and friend is Whitey Murphy (portrayed by William Benedict), a second banana who somehow manages to get himself into a number of situations that requires being rescued by Captain Marvel. He is likeable but not as sharp as Billy is, even though Billy sometimes requires his help in keeping the Scorpion idol lenses safe. Betty Wallace (portrayed by Louise Currie) is the secretary of Professor John Malcolm (Robert Strange), a pretty blonde who is clever and is willing to do her part in helping Billy track down and identify the Scorpion. She is no Lois Lane, to be sure, for Betty does not hesitate to take on the Scorpion's gangsters herself and escape from them. As with Whitey, she periodically has to be rescued by Captain Marvel, most notably after she is knocked unconscious while driving in a multi-storey parking garage in the serial.
As the first chapter unfolds and the natives in a remote part of Siam grow restless, knowing that the temple of the Scorpion has been violated, the members of the Malcolm Expedition fight back, until Billy invokes the magic word: “Shazam!” Then the action really begins: Captain Marvel takes on the entire troops led by Rahman Bar. Moreover, Captain Marvel metes out classic 1941-style justice, using the enemy's machine gun against them; performing well-executed tumbles (performed by stuntman David Sharpe) and landing on the backs of the enemies. Long-distance flying scenes consisted of a dummy Captain Marvel created by Theodore and Howard Lydecker – brothers who worked in Hollywood and became famous for their miniature special effects, preceding the likes of Ray Harryhausen and Jim Danforth. As John Donne has it:
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee
Between the first chapter, which is also the longest in the series at thirty minutes, and the second chapter, where the Malcolm Expedition returns to the States, Captain Marvel's presence in the story is established yet he is never formally introduced to the audience. Perhaps he does not need an introduction, for the superhero's comic books were at their selling peak when this serial was released. Tom Tyler's screen presence is commanding, being literally awesome and fascinating to the audience.
While there is a definite mystique surrounding Captain Marvel in the story, there is one member of the Malcom Expedition who may have a clue as to how Billy Batson and Captan Marvel are connected, and that is Tal Chotali (portrayed by John Davidson). A Siam native, Tal Chotali is a mysterious figure himself, dressed like a mystic with clear understanding of the power of the Scorpion temple being unearthed. From chapter one in the serial it is understood that both Billy Batson and Tal Chotali are on a par with each other in acknowledging the power of the Scorpion idol, neither desiring to be a part of the temple's invasion. As with all truly great films – those which leave something to the viewer's imagination – so does “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” allow the viewer to guess, make assumptions, and literally marvel over the nuances in the story.
What makes the Scorpion a real challenge to identify is his voice, which belongs to none of the unmasked characters in the story. Instead, actor Gerald Mohr (who later did voice-overs in the Hanna-Barbera cartoon “The Fantastic Four”) loaned his sinister-sounding voice as Captain Marvel's adversary while one of the members of the archaeological expedition posed in front of the camera in his black Scorpion hooded mask and robe. There is one point in the serial where Captain Marvel chases the Scorpion through a network underground, and the Scorpion's hood comes off but the shadows conceal his true identity, right up until the very end. Thus the Scorpion's quest for world power comes to an end, per Edwin Arnold:
We are the voices of the wandering wind,
Which moan for rest and rest can never find.
“The Adventures of Captain Marvel” holds the viewer spellbound with its plot turns, top notch acting, special effects, and cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, designed to encourage the continued watching of the serial. Clocking in a slightly over 3 ½ hours, the rest of the main cast is made up of Harry Worth, Bryant Washburn, George Pembroke, George Lynn, Reed Hadley, Nigel De Brulier, and Tetsu Komai, who turn in equaly strong performances as do Tyler, Coghlan, Benedict, and Currie. Directed by John English and William Whitney with the writing team of Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” is the kind of movie serial that will be viewed, enjoyed, appreciated and remembered for generations to come.
“The Adventures of Captain Marvel”
Chapter 1: Curse of the Scorpion
Chapter 2: The Guillotine
Chapter 3: Time Bomb
Chapter 4: Death Takes the Wheel
Chapter 5: The Scorpion Strikes
Chapter 6: Lens of Death
Chapter 7: Human Targets
Chapter 8: Boomerang
Chapter 9: Dead Man's Trap
Chapter 10: Doom Ship
Chapter 11: Valley of Death
Chapter 12: Captain Marvel's Secret